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November 19, 2020

Missouri Breaks 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joe Brehm @ 3:25 am

June 27th. The sun peeks over the Missouri’s north bank, beyond which is short grass prairie and the Missouri Breaks region of Eastern Montana. Cliff swallows already patrol the sunlit sky. A raven calls in the distance. House wrens sing from immense, ancient cottonwoods. We pack our gear into BJ’s truck, park mine in the shade, and drive 2 hours to Fort Benton for one last modern meal before shoving off. Along the way he points out a great deal about the landscape and its people, including a small farming community experimenting with a diversity of crops. It is obvious this bleeding heart Montanan has become truly embedded here and knows the state well, especially this often neglected rural prairie realm of central and eastern MT. Not thinking, I let Junip sit in the backseat and she is ready to barf her guts out by the time we pull into the river town of Fort Benton. After breakfast, we meet with a staff member with Missouri River Outfitters about the details of our canoe rental and trip. It turns out the Bureau of Land Management (one of the federal agencies managing most of this land) was out of their own loop and failed to share important updates with us, like multiple river islands being closed to camping due to nesting eagles, and that they no longer have potable water at Judith’s Landing, our midway point. 

* * *

We pack the canoes to the gills at Coal Banks Landing while yellow warblers hunt in the shade of a russian olive tree.  BJ is anxious that he has forgotten something important–namely his glasses because without them he “can’t see shit”. We look over the food one last time, hoping it will last. As promised, BJ carries a huge bag of sliced salami, and a questionably large tub of potato salad. I refuse to part ways with an exorbitant amount of coffee. We triple-check our calculations for water per person–the river has so much silt it’s not recommended for drinking

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, so we had to pack several five-gallon jugs–and chug what we can’t fit in the boats to at least start off hydrated. 

The current is strong as we shove off. I’m feeling smooth but fearful I will be on J’s case too much about when to paddle or something. She is happy to see the cliff swallows pasting their clay globes to real cliffs rather than concrete bridges. An osprey flies right over and is chased away by eastern kingbirds. Two immature bald eagles take flight from big cottonwoods. White cliffs rise and fall on the river’s south bank. A small quick storm comes up fast. Inspired by the warning about lightning I read a few days ago

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, I want to take cover immediately but we push on another mile to Big Sandy, the first campground to which we come. As we hit the bank and climb out of the boats, a bolt of lightning hits the nearby butte followed by a close clap of thunder, maybe a quarter mile away. J and I duck by the bank while BJ casually reads the map under a big willow. Unsure of the coming weather, I convince him we should stay here, though I know he wants to make more miles.

We rekindle a smoldering willow fire in the metal ring, admire the nesting western kingbirds in the nearest cottonwood, and crack a beer (Coldsmoke Scotch Ale, the best beer in the world) while making camp. Nighthawks own the sky, floating in air like they are dancing on a solid floor or swimming through a still pond. They give substance to the air like no other bird, and dive periodically to create the famous bullroarer sound with their wings, which is akin to a car driving over rumble strips. An eagle watches from the far shore, and I place tobacco by the river, grateful for this place and praying for all of us. We climb in tents as rain returns, the sky velvet blue to the northwest with powerful clouds. As I lay down and close my eyes, the sagebrush sings, and coyotes answer. A beaver hits the water with its tail, a great-horned owl hoots, and nighthawks roar. 

June 28th. I awake as the sun begins to pour golden light onto the cottonwood tops. I make coffee and take a quick walk towards the lightning-struck butte behind camp. A lark sparrow perches on a snag; it’s face is accentuated by tidy patches of deep red framed by bright gray. The row of big cottonwoods along the river are at once stoic and playful, standing witness to all the land endures while their leaves flutter eagerly with the slightest breeze. Least flycatchers, western wood peewees, and bright orange bullocks orioles sing and forage amongst their curled branches. As BJ finishes packing his tent, an eastern kingbird perches on a small willow branch only feet from him, looking on and riding the willow wave as the sapling bobs up and down with the kingbird’s meager weight. Junip returns from a walk all the way up the butte

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, admiring where a Friends group has planted new cottonwood seedlings to restore more of the riverbank and floodplain. BJ knows all about the effort to restore these riparian cottonwood groves, which are the only source of shade along this wide river, surrounded by prairie. 

The sun shines on pale green hills as we shove off from Big Sandy’s kingbird corner. The morning is calm and we float in peace. Junip spots a doe silhouetted high on the ridge, the sun behind it. Downriver, a mule deer and her fawn navigate the sagebrush, the sun illuminating the fawn’s rich brown coat and bright white spots. The doe appears ragged. Mature and immature bald eagles patrol the low skies and perch everywhere they can: the riverbank, dead and live trees, rocky crags, dirt ledges. One adult grabs a fish near the shore and flies downriver; J watches with binos and declares it’s the first time she has ever seen an eagle with a fish in its talons. Soon we come to this eagle’s huge stick nest in a dead cottonwood with at least one youngster still aboard. I wonder if the others have already fledged (I later learn that bald eagles usually have two chicks and sometimes the dominant one will starve the other). 

A thick gray layer of altocumulus suddenly covers the sky and stays the rest of the day. The wind picks up. Every couple of miles, a raven calls once or twice, out of sight. We pass a flock of American Avocets standing nervously at the water’s edge, their long black legs supporting peach flanks and jet black wings.  

One constant out here is the western meadowlark’s song, which will fill the empty space above the river for our entire journey.

We hike up towards Hole in the Wall, following mule deer tracks up to slick white rock faces and stacks of eroding stone. Three white-throated swifts fly overhead, and a mountain bluebird hunts from a yucca stalk perch. I finally touch a creamy yucca flower after seeing so many blossoms from a distance; it is heavy and smooth. A  few species of asters
, including large blanket flowers, are in bloom; their bright colors springing from the drab brown earth are surprising, miraculous. Juniper has been napping on a rock, calmly awaiting our descent. We launch the canoes again and I’m already tired and hungry. Steering the canoe with J paddling in front, I waste energy critiquing her paddling to myself though I am clearly aware there is nothing whatsoever wrong with it. I’m just hungry and tired. I remember to be present and see her again as I see the swallows and their cliffs. We stop for the night at Dark Butte. J raves about the bathroom situation, which is not in an outhouse but simply an elevated toilet perched in the open among the sagebrush with a short fence to keep the business somewhat private, and a grand view of the land. 

I cook rice and beans and eggs, and we build a cottonwood fire. The smell is akin to juniper and invokes a similar sensation of understanding something old and without words; it is as if the smoke bears all the memories of our species. A family camps a few hundred meters downstream, hiking and playing in the wild water. A brisk breeze sets the cottonwoods to their primordial dancing, and a meadowlark sings.

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